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Helen McArdle: The coronavirus panic is another example of the West’s health voyeurism

THE reaction to the coronavirus outbreak has been characterised by something the Spanish call ‘el morbo’.

Basically, a morbid curiosity – the same voyeuristic phenomenon that makes drivers slow down to spectate on the aftermath of a car crash.

The emergence of a brand new and so far untreatable strain from the same family of viruses responsible for deadly diseases including SARS is rightly newsworthy.

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But some of the over-hyped and sensationalist coverage about ‘killer flu’ (NB: hundreds of people die every year in the UK from seasonal influenza) is characteristic of how far we have come from facing genuine peril at the hands of deadly infectious diseases.

When the NHS was born, tuberculosis was rife and polio had spiked to epidemic levels.

The development of vaccines has virtually eradicated once common but terrifying diseases such as diphtheria, and cases of measles – which once left a few unlucky children blind or brain damaged – are tiny compared to previous generations.

In the developed world, where cancers, dementia and obesity are the real (but boring) health crises, there is something almost titillating about the idea of a deadly virus sweeping the globe – just so long as it’s not too close to home.

The reality is that the vast majority of coronavirus cases have occurred China. As the World Health Organisation made clear when it declared a global emergency, the real threat is if it spreads to poorer countries with weak healthcare systems.

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The response to coronavirus has echoes of that seen in the 2009 ‘swine flu’ pandemic when a new strain of H1N1 influenza claimed at least 14,000 lives worldwide – 2,290 of them in the EU.

Compared to seasonal influenza, otherwise healthy under-60s were more likely to be vulnerable to the disease – but the danger was still vanishingly low compared to developing cancer or suffering a heart attack.

Similarly the panic over variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD) – better known as ‘mad cow disease’ – in the 1990s speaks to a morbid tendency to over-hype the risk.

Despite predictions that it could be “worse than AIDS”, to date there have been around 230 confirmed cases worldwide.

Of course the media is a lot to blame. But it also speaks to a human tendency to be fascinated by threats that do not really – or probably won’t – apply to us.

The real risks to our health remain mundane: obesity, alcohol, and lack of exercise. But who wants to hear about that again?

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